Eugene O’Neill’s body of work displays an obvious progression in its sympathetic depiction of humanity, from the playwright’s tentative early one-act plays through his more developed expressionistic period and finally his primarily realistic full-length dramas, with each stage of development delineating the struggle of both bourgeois and working classes, “fog people” and realists, men and women to escape from their too human primal urges and their weaknesses for booze, affection, and recognition. O’Neill’s character development keeps pace with the increasingly rich structural and thematic achievements of his plays, with the early works inhabited by characters that are sometimes more caricature than character—Captain Keeney, Nat Bartlett, Mammy Saunders—and his late plays peopled by more complex, emotionally and psychologically articulated men and women, such as Lavinia Mannon, Con Melody, and any of the tortured Tyrones. Critic John Gassner claims that, as a result of O’Neill’s efforts to simultaneously develop character and dramatic method, “The American drama entered the century and made contributions to world theater that could be considered significantly modern” (O’Neill 1).
Despite critical controversy concerning his methods and results, the same process of development evidences itself with particular notice among several of O’Neill’s plays wherein black characters bear significant dramatic weight. From his early, eerily silent mulatto Sailor in “Thirst” and the fatalistically superstitious protagonist of “The Dreamy Kid,” through the grand and extravagant Brutus Jones and the pathetic and defeated Jim Harris in All God’s Chillun Got Wings, and finally with the hopeless Joe Mott in The Iceman Cometh, O’Neill’s most significant black characters serve a similar, if not the same, purpose as their white counterparts: to portray honestly the human condition as seen through the dark, naturalistic gaze of the playwright. Critics continue to debate whether these portraits rely for their effect too much on stereotype, whether they are harmfully and knowingly racist, or whether they are simply misunderstood. Is Brutus Jones no more than a minstrel-era caricature, strutting about in his gaudy plumage, gold
braid, and broad dialect, or is he the first truly tragic American dramatic creation, black or white? Does Jim Harris exhibit a submissive racial consciousness, a self-created, ethnically charged sense of corroded cultural and personal esteem, or is his obsequiousness to his wife no more tinged by their differences in skin color than the subservience of Orin Mannon to Lavinia in O’Neill’s Electra trilogy, or of Mary Tyrone to her husband James, or of Joe Mott to the taunting of his cohort at Harry Hope’s saloon?
Such questions are difficult to answer with certainty, though easy to debate, as critics seem only too enthusiastic to demonstrate. A frequent O’Neill scholar, Edward L. Shaughnessy finds that O’Neill creates “sympathetic portraits of intelligent and tragic Black characters,” especially in the longer plays, in which they show “a great depth of emotional capability” (“Portraiture” 91, 87). On the other hand, Deborah Wood Holton claims that O’Neill’s attempts to interpret black life between 1919 and 1923 were “blind stereotypic reflections of then prevailing superior attitudes toward black people in general, and also subtle, complex investigations that revealed a possibility for deeper cultural understanding” (29). In Peter J. Gillette’s “O’Neill and the Racial Myths,” Harlem Renaissance critic William Stanley Braithwaite comments that even a well intentioned writer like O’Neill apparently portrayed black people as “primitives” because he conceived of blacks as “inferior, superstitious, half-ignorant” (119), while Holton herself points out O’Neill’s sensitivity to and successful troping of W.E.B. DuBois’ concept of double-consciousness in “The Dreamy Kid,” in Dreamy’s difficulty with self-definition as a result of trying to survive within a society in which the majority’s view of his ethnicity was overrun with cultural stereotypes.1
So where does that leave O’Neill, undoubtedly one of the most significant of American dramatists, in the matter of how well he has understood, constructed and incorporated ethnicity, particularly the ethnicity of his black characters, into his tragic vision of life? Is he to be castigated for propagating even an unconsciously ethnocentrist aesthetic agenda or applauded for bringing sympathetic and significant black characters to the forefront of American drama? In actuality he created sixteen black characters in a total of six plays between 1913 and 1939. From 1919 onward, he demanded consistently, beginning with “The Dreamy Kid” (and counter to common practice of the time), that his plays be cast with black actors rather than white actors in blackface. With such an awareness of O’Neill’s attempt to close the ethnic divide, at least within the world of American drama, a closer exploration of the issues involved seems necessary, an exploration that does not limit itself to an interrogation of how sensitive or insensitive O'Neill was regarding ethnicity per se in his plays, but one that addresses his portrayal of black characters and whether or not it is consistent with that of his white characters. After all, we may assume that on a sliding scale of inter-ethnic relations, even O’Neill was a man of his time and that a subconscious manifestation of societal ethnocentrism seems not only likely but also unavoidable. As Mary Tyrone says in Long Day’s Journey Into Night, “None of us can help the things that life has done to us” (749).
Nevertheless, we must determine whether O’Neill grants privilege to one “race” or ethnic group, or whether his portrayal of black characters is tinged by a general, pervasive and unconscious cultural perception prevalent in his era. While O’Neill must be held responsible for the ultimate success or failure of his plays, can we hold him responsible for being a man of his time, or must we also count him as liable for his lack of cultural and political prescience in not propounding a more progressive and aggressive ethnic vision or agenda? Is All God’s Chillun Got Wings less successful because O’Neill does not find the time to delve into the motivations for Jim’s self-defeating acts? Is Brutus Jones representative of the stereotype of the “black beast” or is his atavism of a more universal nature? Critics hold O’Neill responsible for reflecting the dominant,
enculturated behaviors of his time, even while they miss the fact that the black characters themselves are not treated any better or worse within O’Neill’s uncaring universe than other characters. Indeed, the playwright’s black characters approach dramatic and tragic heights accessible only through full and honest articulation, which would be a dramatic impossibility for simple caricatures.
While critics continue to debate the ultimate success or failure of O’Neill’s politics, his canon seems to indicate that despite the overwhelming social forces and demeaning stereotyping of the period, O’Neill made a consistent and progressively successful effort to include black characters as part of the illusory American “pipe dream.” The focus of this study, then, is to move the discourse beyond one of labeling into an understanding of the sources of the labels and accusations and to discover the extent to which O’Neill’s black characters either further or obscure the playwright’s greater vision: his tragic vision of life as depicted in his plays. How successful O’Neill was in portraying the humanity of his black characters is as important as the degree to which he was able (or unable) to transcend the pervasive racism of the time. It is important to keep in mind that O'Neill was operating within a white society in which the black man was popularly perceived of as primitive, even atavistic, with such beliefs reinforced by the scientific community and often supported by the black community as well.
Discussion of Goals
In this study, I hope to analyze how successfully or unsuccessfully O’Neill’s black characters demonstrate the playwright’s concept of humanity’s ultimate shared doom in a dangerous and often deadly universe in which, according to Hickey in The Iceman Cometh, there is no tomorrow. This study’s five plays present a fertile context for the exploration of O’Neill’s aesthetic, allowing for a focus on the portrayal of ethnicity as narrative strategy throughout his career and consideration of whether or not the playwright was consistent in the use of cultural and social indicators in his portrayal of a wide variety of sub-classes within the dominant culture. The most significant and individualized black characters in O’Neill’s plays appear in “Thirst” (1916), “The Dreamy Kid” (1919), The Emperor Jones (1920), All God’s Chillun Got Wings (1924), and The Iceman Cometh (1939), all collectively constituting a wide and inclusive vision of black (American and otherwise) people. The Moon of the Carribees (1918) also includes black characters in the figures of the native Caribbean women who board the S.S. Glencairn, but since the play functions largely (and most successfully) as a kind of “mood play,” so do these characters seem to function more as part of the setting and background than as pro-active forces within the context of the white protagonist’s dilemma. While I will refer briefly to the play and its black characters as part of O’Neill’s canon, the nature of the characters’ collective difference as rhetorical devices—dramatic devices rather than fleshed-out characters—recasts them as less central to the concerns of this study in comparison to the central figures in the five plays that serve as the basis for this study.
O’Neill’s significant characters in these five plays remain subject to the residual and still threatening effects of bigotry. They are condemned to live in a world that continues to subjugate them and subvert their humanity, forcing them to exist in a context of hatred, fear, dissipation and doom even while embodying the divisive nature of DuBois’ double-consciousness. The mulatto Sailor in “Thirst” is suspected of cannibalism and eventually succumbs to the naturalistic forces of the playwright’s fictional universe; the Dreamy Kid is hunted by a gang and victimized by residual superstition, afraid of the moral consciousness represented by his dying grandmother and ensnared by the American dream of material gain even at profound psychological cost; Brutus Jones is haunted and hunted by physical and mental demons that inhabit both his collective and ethnic unconsciousness; Jim Harris’ fate rests at the feet of his increasingly unstable wife and her racist fears; and Joe Mott inhabits the same den of despondency and failure as his white comrades at Harry Hope’s bar, while the doom of his hope for as bright a future as theirs is gloomily foreshadowed by his status as a minority within the white majority. These situations may at first appear to do little to rescue the characters from the critics who cite them as examples of O’Neill’s possibly racist sensibilities (particularly under the then-prevailing shadow of residual Jim Crowism), but we must question whether or not any of O’Neill’s characters—black, white or otherwise— are free of the same bleak forces inherent in an uncaring, naturalistic universe and the human constructs that reinforce the attending despair. If so, does O’Neill’s locating of his black characters in their physical, cultural and social circumstances function as racist stereotyping or merely equal treatment within the sphere of the playwright’s own doom plagued world view? O’Neill’s eventual infusion of developed psychological forces into his black characters may have inscribed them as fate-driven primitives at the mercy of their atavistic histories, but it can be argued that he did the same with his Irish and Catholic characters, as well as their Protestant (and often New England-bound) derivatives. The fortune-driven Captain Keeney of O’Neill’s early short play "Ile" will eventually become the much more complex Con Melody in A Touch of the Poet, just as the silent mulatto in “Thirst” and the minor female characters in The Moon of the Carribees lay the groundwork for richer dramatic realizations in Brutus Jones and Joe
In fact, many critics argue that O’Neill’s Irish characters are particularly subject to caricature: Keeney is limited by his desire for personal gain; Melody is a disillusioned, drunken dreamer. Ella’s pugilistic brother in All God’s Chillun Got Wings and The Iceman Cometh’s despondent Larry Slade also provide evidence for O’Neill’s equally jaundiced view of supposedly Irish traits. Are we then to understand O’Neill’s view of ethnicity in the superstition and fear of Dreamy and Brutus Jones, or in the context of the playwright’s bold “Fuck you!” to the Klan’s condemnation of inter-ethnic casting in the original production of All God’s Chillun Got Wings? Is his stage description of the bloodstains on the ocean in “Thirst” as “black” more significant than his real-world refusal to attend a segregated dinner? Is Dreamy’s superstition superceded by O’Neill’s published statement that “Prejudice born of an entire ignorance of the subject is the last word in injustice and absurdity” (Gelb 550)? What seems more important in this and similar debates is whether or not the universe O’Neill depicted in his plays is equally oblivious to the petty human concerns of all the playwright’s characters, enveloping them within the same deterministic, universal despair. O’Neill’s moral imagination does not seem to permit his protagonists to become mere victims, for such characters are forced to participate in the progression of their own respective fates. If O’Neill had wanted to use issues of ethnicity merely as plot devices, his theatrical acumen and modern sensibility would most likely have made him realize the difference encoded in his use of ethnic minorities and in the immediately noticeable difference of the actors’ skin color.
In fact, if we are to accept the deterministic forces that rumble beneath the surface of O’Neill’s plays as a functioning principle, then we must also accept the deeper, tragic nature of his despairing characters who are subject to the same cosmic indifference or even a more deterministic victimization, since such forces will lead to, and are indeed necessary for, the tragedy inherent in their stories. The overarching racism and fear that limn the world of these characters may not function as specifically in their determinism as does what the author called the “psychological approximation of fate” that underscores his Electra, or the specific familial legacies that doomed the Melody, Tyrone and Leeds families. Racism is not restricted to specific individuals or families except as such people or groups of people may inhabit particular ethnic classifications, but the psychological, spiritual and cultural forces of racism function in granting his black characters the same degree of nobility required by his white characters. Indeed, the quest for the meaning of existence for either black or white characters proves itself to be spiritual or even religious in nature for O’Neill, according to Virginia Floyd, in that the playwright’s concern is not the relation between people, but “between God and man and between man and his divided soul, seeking, as was the playwright himself, for a faith to make it whole” (New Assessment 6). It is in that provision of equality under the deterministic forces of a dark universe that O’Neill succeeds in overcoming the allegedly racist portrayals for which some critics take him to task.
Much of the critical focus on the playwright’s supposed racism stems from his problematic use of dialects—O’Neill’s self-acknowledged reputation for having a “tin ear” for realistic, dramatic dialogue notwithstanding—or his broad and seemingly superficial descriptions of his characters’ physical appearance. These dialect and language issues lie at the center of much O’Neill criticism, and they can be easily interpreted as a sort of linguistic masking. For example, the debate continues on the correct semantic interpretation of such words as “yet” in his physical description of Brutus Jones: “His features are typically Negroid, yet [my italics] there is something distinctive about his face. . . .” (5). Some critics debate the connotative and the denotative meanings of the word but stop short of full contemplation of the character that actually exists in performance. Similarly, Jones’ minstrel-like diction invites criticism: “Oh, dat silver bullet! Sho’ was luck. But I makes dat luck, you heah?” (8) The criticism seems to extend the debate over O’Neill’s aesthetic achievement: on the one hand, some critics see him as a clumsy writer whose difficulties in developing a consistent dramatic language for his characters limit the effectiveness of his drama; on the other hand, he is acclaimed as a major influence on subsequent American dramatists and a creator of true American tragedy. Perhaps the answer to our question regarding O’Neill’s inconsistent language lies in questioning the nature of that critical ambivalence itself. For example, does the lower class dialect of Yank, the “hairy ape,” function differently as narrative strategy from the lower class dialect of Dreamy? Is Brutus Jones’ pleasure in wearing his regalia any more ethnically based or significant than Con Melody’s desire to wear his own military uniform as a badge of his superiority? The fear and hatred resounding throughout the houses of the Cabot, Mannon, and Leeds families do not appear as pervasive in O’Neill’s portrayal of the black family unit in All God’s Chillun Got Wings. Even the troubled household of Mammy Saunders and Dreamy is infused more with familial affection than suspicion. Might we then be able to claim that the playwright is in fact more favorable to his black families? If so, how do such realizations inform our understanding of his purported racism?
It would be a spurious examination that intentionally disregards perceived racist phenomena in O’Neill’s plays. In 1919, O’Neill fully engaged the politics of culture in the stereotypes he presented in “The Dreamy Kid”: the superstitious “black beast” Dreamy, the matriarchal Jemimah-esque Mammy. O’Neill continued to rely consciously on the rhetorical shortcuts provided by use of stereotypes in his later plays, as we can see with the primitivism of the white Yank in The Hairy Ape, primitivism we can see reflected even in the works of some contemporaneous black writers such as Claude McKay, whose Home to Harlem was generally praised by white critics, though it was condemned by some black ones such as W.E.B. DuBois, who objected to the purportedly stereotypical licentiousness of the black characters. But O’Neill was also able to portray his black characters as worthy of sympathy, with complex human emotions, family relations, and aspirations, just as he did with characters of other ethnic (and social) backgrounds. However, my main concern is that the achievement of his theatre be not lessened as a result of critics’ efforts to put the rhetorical cart before the horse. I plan to point out some of the unfortunately negative stereotypes O’Neill uses as a semiotic shorthand, not for the sake of condemning or demeaning his art, nor to label him as unquestionably either racist or not. Rather, I hope to show how his depiction of his ethnic characters’ behaviors, as well as his own culturally influenced understanding of ethnicity, functions as a narrative strategy that ultimately does not disrupt the development of a coherent, unified and self-reflective body of work. I also hope to examine how his major “black” plays are not limited by their deceptively “racist” elements but rather reflect O’Neill’s quest to understand humanity, a view that is finally consistent within the entirety of his canon and an articulation of his personal philosophy: “To me, there are no good people or bad people, just people. The same with deeds. ‘Good’ and ‘evil’ are stupidities, as misleading and outworn fetishes as Brutus Jones’ silver bullet” (“Star is Rising”). This statement itself seems to indicate O’Neill’s cultural awareness.
Eugene O’Neill was familiar with the profound effects of ethnic prejudice, even when it was incorrectly perceived merely in terms of skin color. Constantly aware of the bigotry among the New London Yankees toward his own family because of its Irish ancestry, O’Neill understood the degradation and prejudice often leveled against culturally marginalized populations. In at least one way, O’Neill’s Irish Catholic heritage was one of the most significant factors in his dramatic efforts in this and other early plays, since he remained haunted by the discrimination his family had faced both in Ireland and in their adoptive New England, the geographical designation of which should probably have warned O’Neill’s father that the hated “English” had merely relocated and would continue to cause difficulties. Such discrimination can be seen in the social ostracism his family faced as both Irish and “show people” in conservative New London, Connecticut. This ostracism undoubtedly contributed heavily to O’Neill’s ability to identify with and faithfully recreate the outcasts he encountered throughout his life.
O’Neill’s friendship with Joe Smith, the black gambler with whom he often shared lodgings at the Hell Hole in 1915, illustrates the playwright’s keen awareness of the insidious nature of bigotry and the close relationships he established with the black community during his days in Greenwich Village. Smith would serve as a partial basis for several future O’Neill characters, including the complex and fully realized Joe Mott in The Iceman Cometh. Almost uncannily foreshadowing the attitudes of Hickey in that play, O’Neill tried to afford Smith the moral support to work his way out of his despair: “Buck up, Joe!” he told Smith. “You’re not going to confess the game has licked you, are you? That isn’t like you! Get a new grip on yourself and you can knock it dead yet!” (O’Neill at Work 176). Clearly, O’Neill felt a personal connection to his down-and-out-comrade.
Smith was also the basis for the “Negro gambler” who was the subject of O’Neill’s never-completed play, “Honest Honey Boy,” begun in 1921. The playwright’s italicized notes for another play further indicate his awareness of ethnic prejudice. In his first recorded notes for All God’s Chillun Got Wings in 1922, O’Neill reveals that the germ of the play originated in his own knowledge of black life: “Play of Johnny T.—base play on his experience as I have seen it intimately” (O’Neill at Work 176). As we will see in the next chapter, the black protagonist is undone by bigotry, his intelligence and self-esteem are ravaged, and he is reduced to accepting his own incompetence by the machinations of his white wife and by the dominant white culture that ultimately overwhelms him.
Further evidence of the playwright’s sensitivity toward and experience with marginalized ethnic groups lies in the unproduced play, “Bantu Boy.” Between 1927 and 1934, O’Neill worked sporadically on the play, in which a noble African chief is stolen from his homeland, brought to the United States as a slave and eventually proves the superior of his white oppressors. To O’Neill, the play would reflect black peoples’ “whole experience in modern times—especially in regard to America” (A New Assessment 181). That the chief/slave in the play proves to exceed the nobility and humanity exhibited by his white captors is significant, especially regarding many critics’ responses to The Emperor Jones and O’Neill’s allegedly pejorative atavism of black peoples. One might criticize the troubling diminution of characters in their titular nomenclature—“Honest Honey Boy,” “The Dreamy Kid,” “Bantu Boy”—but while there is little support to the supposition that the play about the chief may have been written to appease such critics, it is possible to see that even a cursory glance at the scope of the aforementioned plays indicates that O’Neill was familiar with and concerned about the plight of black people in America beyond their perceived diminished manhood. However, even his “intimate” familiarity with their experience was necessarily and unavoidably limited, though his interest was not.
Focus of Study in the Plays
I will begin by examining “Thirst” and “The Dreamy Kid,” the two earliest of the plays, in which the black characters are more simply articulated than the characters in the three later plays. I will examine the controversial elements of purported racism in each, and then show how “race”—or a non-essentialized ethnicity—and its portrayal function as narrative strategy in developing O’Neill’s pervasive concept of the life-lie—the necessary illusions that allow his characters to accept their fates—as well as how racism itself is one of those life-lies that O’Neill (like Iceman’s Hickey) tries to explode. For example, in “Thirst,” the white Gentleman and Dancer are afraid that the mulatto Sailor has stolen the dwindling supply of fresh water and that he represents a threat of cannibalism to the Gentleman and physical violence to the Dancer, fears that result from black, especially slave, stereotypes and perceived “primitivism.” In “The Dreamy Kid,” the first recognized attempt in American drama to provide roles for an all-black cast, the unseen and threatening white figures converge stealthily and unrelentingly on the title character, presumably as a result of Dreamy’s self-defensive killing of a white man. At least according to Dreamy, the white man threatened him for no reason, though in the play’s eerie foreshadowing of Richard Wright’s Native Son, it is the white people’s fear of black people that triggers the conditions that nurture tragedy. Both the mulatto Sailor and Dreamy exhibit an ability to survive against monumental odds, including a lack of nourishment for the sailor and a lack of clear escape routes for Dreamy, within their respective “white prisons”: the confined white space of the shark-filled sea and Dreamy’s encroaching white enemies.
In addition, I will proceed to illustrate how The Emperor Jones functions as central to the critical interpretation of O’Neill’s ethnic creations and how Jones himself incorporates the positive and negative social and personal characteristics that earmark not only ethnic others, but all characters in the O’Neill canon. In discussing All God’s Chillun Got Wings, I will focus mostly on how ethnicity informs and influences the black/white conflict at the heart of Jim and Ella’s relationship, as that relationship itself represents a microcosm of O’Neill’s view of race relations in the United States. I will also discuss how the play exists as a significant step forward in the psychological and structural craftsmanship of O’Neill’s drama. In this play, the social forces of racism represent psychological forces, showing how the white reaction to blackness and the reciprocal response were both the product of the same degradation.
I will conclude with a discussion of Joe Mott in The Iceman Cometh and how he represents the culmination of O’Neill’s development of black characters in the way that the playwright finally created a fully realized and valid existence for his black characters that parallels that of his white characters, an existence free of the negative portrayals that may have informed and detracted from his earlier plays. In The Iceman Cometh as in his other late plays, O’Neill returned to the study of the individual’s struggle against fate and death, and the search for the true self behind self-constructed masks. In these plays, he asks what happens when the fugitive characters become aware that their masks are transparent, when they learn that their illusions are false and intrinsically, ultimately useless. I will show how the dissolution of the false self-image leads to an equilibrium between the character and that character’s ideal, a dramatic achievement that leads directly to psychic paralysis and eventual doom, as seen either in the darkened bedroom of Dreamy’s grandmother or in the last-ditch hideaway of Harry Hope’s saloon. Here it is the self, not the skin color, that proves to be the worst enemy of the characters, the unrelenting force that spells their sad endings yet ultimately affirms their mutual link to the rest of the human race and indicates O’Neill’s respect for all levels of humanity.
My study also touches on the contemporaneous efforts of black artists to render their lives on their own terms. Instead of relying on white writers to portray the black experience, black artists tried not only to celebrate that experience but also to differentiate it from the white-created myths. According to Bill Ashcroft, language itself is the key to the differentiation, since “it is in language that the colonial discourse is engaged at its most strategic point” (14). White writers such as O’Neill and Carl Van Vechten may have created “a sympathetic audience for the serious treatment of Negro subjects” (Bone 60), but in 1925, Alain Locke would declare, “The day of ‘aunties’ and ‘uncles’ and ‘mammies’ is…gone” (5). Somewhat ironically, Richard Wright’s Bigger Thomas would later seem to embody much of the experience of the main characters in the three earliest plays that comprise this study: the mulatto Sailor’s revitalization (in “Thirst”) after the death of the white woman (a professional performer, just as Mary Dalton is clearly “performing” as an enlightened liberal and Communist), Dreamy’s crime (which, like Bigger’s, sets up the tension and ensuing hunt by white people whose fearful perceptions nurtured the tension), and Jones’ mad flight (which parallels Bigger’s own self-defeating charge through the urban jungle of Chicago). If Wright is dealing significantly with some of the same motivations as O’Neill, albeit a couple of decades later, then what basis is there in ascribing racism to the use of such similar dramatic plot devices in the work of (the white) O’Neill?
This study will show how O’Neill’s ethnic portrayals validate his idea of a common humanity; that is, he subjects his black characters to the same forces, both internal and external, as he does his white characters, and as a result, they are equally as likely to share similar fates. As O’Neill progresses from the minor successes of “Thirst” to the major achievements of The Iceman Cometh, he seems to develop a greater understanding of humanity in all its shades, eliminating reliance on widely perceived ethnic myths and developing his idea of universal brotherhood in a universe governed by psychological fate.
As with all other significant characters in his plays, the progressive complexity of characterization does indicate the playwright’s developing skill at investing them with increasing depth. The black men are portrayed as psychologically real, like white men in every way except in the color of their skin. In fact, O’Neill’s greater skill in portraying complex psychology as he moved through the 1920s contributed to the creation of his black characters as being destroyed by the very psychological depth that defines them as real and equal to their white brothers, rather than as stereotypes. That O’Neill used the same strategies for future white, tragically fated characters such as Con Melody, Mary Tyrone, and Lavinia Mannon serves to further support his use of ethnicity as indicator of the common bond of ultimate doom within the ultimately hopeless universe. No one gets special treatment, and no one is free from fear or death, the great equalizers in the playwright’s universe. Indeed, O’Neill was engaged in a quest to verify the existence of an eternal principle in human existence, a principle I hope to show that is not only eternal but also universal throughout O’Neill’s body of work.
There are at least two forms of discourse pervading O’Neill’s “black” plays. One is the discourse of the critical tradition that was and remains dominant in the corpus of criticism on American literature. Another is the varied discourse of the black characters as seen through the white lens of O’Neill’s worldview: their dialects, their aspirations to success in a predominantly white world, their attempts to bridge cultural gaps. However, neither of these rhetorical traditions should be essentialized as a totalistic entity that emphasizes the immutability of its respective category. Analysis of the plays in question will illuminate the relative positions of the characters in terms of both discourses. It is just such a varied and shifting nature of discourse, I believe, that lends further credence to a fuller understanding of O’Neill’s supposedly theatrical ambivalence. Such a Modernist ambivalence— fragmentation, destabilized meaning, despair, bleakness—can been perceived in the outcomes of each of the plays considered in this study. None of the plays seem to be able to extract themselves from the binary opposition between the attractive but dangerous white world and the equally mysterious and dangerous black one. It seems that the major black characters face alienation in whichever world they choose, whichever discourse they attempt to embody or mask.
Critics continue to disagree as to the level of achievement in O’Neill’s portrayal of alienation. Some find parallels between the author’s characterization of African and Irish Americans. Shaughnessy recognizes the potential for universality in O’Neill’s ethnic portrayals and, in fact, he indicates his belief that O’Neill went so far as to intentionally incur doubts about his sympathies in his creation of the memorable Brutus Jones and Jim Harris. His conclusion that O’Neill is guilty only of “faithful realism” underlies his mostly even-handed investigation of both African and Irish Americans (“Realism” 161). Shaughnessy draws other comparisons in Down the Nights and Down the Days: Eugene O’Neill’s Catholic Sensibility, focusing as he does on the common psychological and spiritual underpinnings of significant characters of all ethnicities and ultimately placing the question of racism within the context of O’Neill’s struggles with determinism and freedom. He contends that O’Neill’s position against racism was possibly rooted in his awareness that African and Irish Americans both fell victim to similar stereotypes portrayed with great frequency in the American theatre, particularly since the mid-nineteenth century, and subsequently appropriated by the masses. Without necessarily contradicting Shaughnessy, I suggest that while O’Neill is keenly aware of the isolated effects of such deterministic forces as ethnic intolerance, economics, and religion, his characters—black or white—are perhaps more notably victims of a larger fatalistic force. Such a force might be more easily understood as a combination of individual forces that affect all people. O’Neill’s plays with central characters who are black therefore focus less on the characters’ ethnicity per se than on the more pressing challenge of what it means to be part of the human race. With this deeper commonality emphasized, O’Neill was able to afford his ethnic characters greater equality, at least in their doomed existences. In providing this equality, O’Neill simultaneously enhanced the image and deepened the complexity of all marginalized people in the face of their inevitable naturalistic despair.
Research Basis of Discussion
Joel Pfister describes how O’Neill would have been aware that nineteenth-century blackface minstrel shows also characterized the Irish as “shiftless, ignorant drinkers.” In addition, he charts the origination of the appellation “Irish nigger” in the antebellum South, where the Irish were often employed as expendable laborers on jobs too dangerous to be performed by black property (123-24). It is therefore possible to draw a plausible link between O’Neill’s description of Brutus Jones’ face as “typically Negroid” and his description of Larry Slade’s “gaunt Irish face.” By incorporating both early and late works, I will try to show how the patterns of ethnic portrayal elicit further support for O’Neill’s rhetorical strategy in portraying alterity. Both faces can be immediately perceived in terms of their existence as “masks” (a theatrical device O’Neill experimented with often) and the behaviors and character indicated by them, but they both also serve to cover up the real, more complex psyches lurking beneath the masks of these two fascinating and complicated characters.
Further support for these ideas can be found in the standard biography of Eugene O’Neill by Arthur and Barbara Gelb, first published in 1960 and recently updated to include a new focus on O’Neill’s (and the biographers’) dramatic interpretations of his immediate family, particularly in their chronicling of the playwright’s personal interactions with his actors and audiences. The Gelbs paint a multi-faceted portrait of the artist caught between the reactionary nature of conservative public perception and acceptance of ethnic stereotypes and his own apparent ambivalence to other ethnic groups. Perhaps the most startling contrast the Gelbs draw is in recounting O’Neill’s ebullient praise of Charles Gilpin—the original Brutus Jones—as the only actor who ever carried out O’Neill’s every idea of the character as written, and his subsequent eruption at Gilpin for changing what the actor considered “racist” language in the play, calling Gilpin a “black bastard” (449). Gilpin complained, for example, about the repeated use of “nigger,” though an examination of the play will, I believe, indicate the word is used accurately as Jones or Smithers would have within the context of the play. Indeed, it is a term that the denizens of Harry Hope’s bar will later use to describe Joe Mott as well. O’Neill’s real-life friendship with Joe Smith, a black man with whom the author shared quarters at Jimmy-the-Priest’s, lends credence to claims for O’Neill’s open-mindedness within his closed-minded society.
Travis Bogard’s Contour in Time (1972) provides a thorough literary analysis of all of O’Neill’s published plays, including the five that function as the basis for my study. Bogard’s chronological discussion provides a developmental context not only for O’Neill’s craftsmanship—details of the characters’ origins in O’Neill’s own life, the playwright’s struggles to recreate his experiences in theatrical terms—but also for his thematic and personal achievements. In fact, Bogard uses his study of the playwright’s canon as an examination of O’Neill’s quest for his own identity. While he claims that the characters functioned independently of their creator as rhetorical and dramatic constructs, he also suggests that the characters’ masks were very thin and barely hid characters derived from the playwright’s life. Such a consideration is important when we realize that O’Neill’s examination of the lives of his black characters derived from his own experience and would of necessity be reflected in his work, albeit with the ambivalence that marks his modern sensibilities. The two-part biography by Lewis Sheaffer—O’Neill: Son and Playwright (1968) and O’Neill: Son and Artist (1973)—also examines the playwright’s own response to racism and, in particular, clarifies O’Neill’s part in his feud with Gilpin.
In addition to the authoritative work of the Gelbs, Sheaffer, Bogard, and Shaughnessy, a number of other primary and secondary sources are of special value to this work. Important biographical treatments include Part of a Long Story (1958), written by O’Neill’s wife Agnes Boulton, chronicling their stormy eleven-year marriage, the birth of their first child, and the development of O'Neill’s work within the period. Another significant look at O’Neill as father and husband more so than as playwright is The Curse of the Misbegotten: A Tale of the House of O’Neill (1959), written by Croswell Bowen with Shane O’Neill, the author’s son. The curse of the title refers to the inability of the O’Neill family to communicate their deep capacity for love to each other. While Bowen’s book reads more like a story than a biography, it is one of the most complete, factual accounts of O’Neill’s personal history prior to the Gelbs’. An important early contribution to understanding the reaction of O’Neill’s contemporaries to the playwright’s art is Barrett H. Clark’s Eugene O’Neill: The Man and His Plays. Originally published in 1926, it was the first book to be devoted entirely to O’Neill. It includes a brief biography, play analyses, passages from letters and bibliographic material, though it was later revised. While this volume provides an important look at the early critical reaction to the playwright, its value is limited in that its critical lens is tainted by the same era-specific racist thought that O’Neill was trying to overcome. On the other hand, The Cambridge Companion to Eugene O’Neill (1998), edited by Michael Manheim, the author of Eugene O’Neill’s New Language of Kinship (1982), is a wide-ranging collection of up-to-date articles that focus on both biographical and artistic matters. The well known O’Neill scholars who contributed spend a significant amount of time examining the context of early criticism and reaction to the plays and thereby provide a useful contemporary and broad approach to O’Neill on both stage and page.
One of the most useful of references is Stephen A. Black’s Eugene O’Neill: Beyond Mourning and Tragedy. Largely a biography, its exploration focuses on O’Neill’s interest in psychology and the playwright’s own psychological development. As my own work relies on the depth of psychological discourse among the characters, Black’s book provided key insights into both playwright and character.
Secondary sources that focus on dramatic criticism of O’Neill’s work include the indispensable anthology O’Neill and His Plays: Four Decades of Criticism (1961), edited by Oscar Cargill. It is a comprehensive collection of pre-postmodern criticism, reviews, memoirs, production records, and an extensive bibliography. Similarly useful is Leonard Chabrowe’s 1976 volume, Ritual and Pathos: The Theater of O’Neill, which looks at the playwright’s sense of art and the aesthetic, as well as the pursuit of his craft. Eugene O’Neill and the Tragic Tension: An Interpretive Study of the Plays (1958) by Doris Falk is an expansion of her own doctoral dissertation that studied the plays as the development of a common theme: O’Neill’s conception of the inward, uniquely personal experience of modern man as tragic hero. The book is therefore narrow in focus, but it does concentrate on developing an idea of O’Neill’s thematic unity across the body of his work. In fact, Falk’s book provided the structural idea for my own study, relying on a specific thematic concern to unite an exploration of several of his plays. Virginia Floyd’s trio of books provides a broad base of criticism and incorporates information from O’Neill’s notes and notebooks to provide a new, more comprehensive assessment of O’Neill’s methods and achievement. Margaret Loftus Ranald’s 1984 volume, The Eugene O’Neill Companion, is one of the most important sources for bibliography, biography, and chronology, though its date of publication makes it less valuable now than when originally released. However, it provided a set of early leads in beginning my research and as such was valuable as a springboard into understanding the broad scope of O’Neill criticism.
Significant individual articles by important critics of O’Neill’s era include work by Eric Bentley, whose “Trying to Like O’Neill” surmises that a dislike for O’Neill suggests a dislike for the times themselves. It comments on the characteristics of Modernism and the Modern period. Other writers such as Deborah Wood Holton, Gabriele Poole and Edward Shaughnessy contribute critical discussions of O’Neill’s continuing challenges in dramatizing black characters.
Although I rely primarily on the primary and secondary sources listed, I supplement my readings of those works with studies of general works about twentieth century literature and drama. Chief among such works is C.W.E. Bigsby’s A Critical Introduction to Twentieth Century American Drama (1985). Several volumes by John Gassner provide an earlier look at the development of American drama, as does Arthur Hobson Quinn’s history of American drama through 1935, A History of the American Drama from the Civil War to the Present Day (1936). Internet and electronic database research provide an even broader base of support for my inquiries. The resources available through the special collections of O’Neill material in the Beinecke Library at Yale University, the Charles E. Shain Library at Connecticut College, and the archives at Monte Cristo Cottage, part of the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center in New London, Connecticut, provide additional support.
Clarification of Terms
At this point, a caveat may be in order. In a work of this type, the stated aim is to locate relationships from which a general theory can be developed, qualified, or even ultimately repudiated in light of alternative interpretation. The varied nature of the current body of criticism indicates the need for a new appreciation of O’Neill’s methods and solutions. However, the link between O’Neill’s life and his work makes it extremely difficult to establish absolute relationships, so perhaps this study may act more as a point of departure from which, someday, a more fully developed theory may be launched. In addition, the use of the general term “black,” rather than more specific and contemporary “African American,” while more or less arbitrary, provides a more generally appropriate terminology that allows for greater flexibility in discussion and study of individual plays. Using comparable terms such as “European American” or “Irish American” would detract from the nature of the black/white categorizations that underscore critics’ analyses, despite the terms’ greater ethnic specificity. Indeed, not all the black characters are American, nor would they necessarily acknowledge their African heritage as part of their contemporary identity. Brutus Jones’ regression to his sub-consciousness is evidence that suppression of his African heritage in part led to his tragic end. While study of the era in question might dictate the use of the period-specific terms “Negro” or the subsequently used “colored,” I will use such terms only in regard to criticism that employs them and in the instance of O’Neill’s own use of the terms. Other terms denoting ethnicity—Afro-American, Africanic, and their many variations—are more subject to identification with period or attitude than the more general “black.”
Similarly, I will employ the word “ethnicity” in place of “race,” except as specified in the preface, as the latter term, while perhaps more commonly (and loosely) used to define differences based upon physiology and traditionally (if too casually) used to define a difference between black and white people, is less useful in my study. While O’Neill himself used “race” in defining black from white subjects, the term, as discussed in the preface, is perhaps too readily understood in a biological sense. While O’Neill’s characters may indeed have been subjected to a time-specific perception of a biological distinction between black and white people, our temporal distance allows for a classification of greater empirical validity and usefulness. Early anthropologists may have relied upon biological attributes to classify various living populations throughout the world into distinctive “races,” according to Raymond Scupin, but these scientists have developed more advanced research techniques and methods that have led to the abandonment of simple constructions of “race,” and indeed, “the vast majority of anthropologists have rejected the concept of ‘race’ as a useful scientific concept” (“Anthropology” 5). In this study, I will use the term as a tool, not a precise descriptive signifier but rather a literary trope that does not essentialize the experience of O’Neill’s black characters. I will rely primarily on the use of “ethnicity” rather than “race,” as it is based on a conception of a shared history, culture, or ancestry. Indeed, the ways in which we perceive, interpret and evaluate ethnic difference in the United States might even be better understood as a kind of performance that gains meaning from what history or tradition has deposited on the performing bodies (Lee 72).
I will rely on both objective and subjective aspects of ethnicity, as outlined by Scupin, in which the objective aspect is found in “the observable culture and shared symbols of a particular group” and “may involve a specific language or religious tradition” (“Ethnicity” 68), while the subjective aspect involves the internal beliefs of shared origin or ancestry, including, in some cases, a belief that their ethnicity is linked to some specific, common physical characteristics (ibid). As Homi Bhabha states, the dominant culture produces stereotypes based on such characteristics out of his or her own “phobic myth of the undifferentiated whole white body” (Location 92). Occasionally, I will use the terms “racism” or “racist” to indicate the continuing actions that suggest fear of or action taken against people based upon their skin color. While such a use may seem inconsistent with the mitigation of the term “race” in this study, I include it occasionally because of the history of physical and psychological violence and political maneuvering connoted within the term, connotations that a more contemporary signifier such as “ethnocentrism” may lack. When I do use “racism” or “racist,” it is to underscore the acknowledged subjective negativity still associated with the term rather than the less connotative “ethnocentrism” or “ethnocentrist.” Since the characters’ actions are based on their own (probably) biological understanding of “race,” the actions can be termed similarly: “racism” and “racist” apply to their (false) biological understanding of the differences between black and white people.
In addition, I hope to clarify the use of the terms “primitive” and “primitivism” in hopes of destigmatizing them as signifying something suggesting “less developed” cultures than similar subjects in the dominant culture. In fact, Tracy McCabe states that primitivism is not a monolithic discourse to be simply labeled as either subversive to or supportive of a dominant ideology (475). She describes the primitive as not being necessarily “savage, backward, or exotic other than to the Western civilized,” but rather as that which suggests origins in a distant past “whose calm simplicity is defined by contrast to the anxiety of modern life” (486). Since O’Neill fits squarely into study as representative of fractured “modern life” in the early decades of the twentieth century, McCabe’s definition seems apt and useful in application to the playwright’s tragic view of humanity.
Furthermore I limit the use of the term “tragedy.” For Eugene O’Neill, tragedy is not the result of an Aristotelian concept of action and unity as much as it is a given, an understood and even essential condition of his universe. It is not limited to the noble, to the great or near great. All characters, regardless of ethnic or economic backgrounds, experience the simultaneous indignity and nobility of the human condition and its shared fate. All of his characters rely on the comfort provided by their illusions. In the plays comprising this study, ethnic prejudice leads to a fate as certain as death. According to Shaughnessy, O’Neill’s talent lay in being able to peer deeply into the damage wrought as a result of prejudice (“faithful realism” 150). Through a faithful attention to psychological detail, O’Neill succeeds in revealing his characters’ inner natures, according the same tragic human nature to his black characters as to his white ones. That O’Neill was able to accomplish his dramatic goals within the burgeoning Modernist movement and prevailing literary naturalism indicates a particular skill in concurrently mythicizing and historicizing. He used and expanded myth—ethnic, cultural, and otherwise—to endow the human experience with significant, even expansive, meaning rather than to propagate a negative or even specific view of race. To consider his work as a whole is to understand the recurrence of thematic patterns so obsessive that, from another point of view, they might well be understood as complexes.
Another primary concern in the study of O’Neill’s plays is the connection between the plays themselves and the playwright’s conscious narrative strategies and themes. It is important to focus particularly on the shadowy psychological and social conflicts that generally take place within the characters’ psyches, not to shine a glaring light on O’Neill’s possibly ambivalent and often ambiguous world view, but to draw out the characteristics of O’Neill’s use of ethnicity as narrative strategy. Indeed, it is the characters’ embodiment of their masks or life-lies that serves as a constant in their failure to achieve happy endings. My aim is to examine the manner in which O’Neill’s aesthetic re-shapes the psychological and socio-cultural elements that converge and collide in his plays dealing with significant black characters, rumble menacingly throughout his uncaring universe, and lay bare the falsity of pipe dreams and illusions.
1DuBois says that the American “Negro” always feels a sense of doubleness in his existence: “ An American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.” The Souls of Black Folk (New York: Fawcett, 1903, rep. 1961) 16-17.
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